Theatrical Release: June 27, 1990 (USA)
DVD Release: August 12, 2014
Director: Alejandro Jodorowsky
Review by James Klein
What I find most difficult in reviewing movies for Unrated Film are the films that I truly love. It’s easy to rip on bad movies and write jokes and mock, but when we receive a film that one can consider a work of art, I get writer’s block. It is rather hard to write about something that hasn’t already been said before. We, as critics, want to provoke our readers into searching out these films, these cinematic masterpieces, and sometimes it can be pretty trying to think of something new to say about a film that was critically acclaimed and written about many, many times before. Santa Sangre is that film. Santa Sangre is art. Santa Sangre is a must see.
Young Fenix (Adam Jodorowsky) is a practicing circus magician who travels with his drunken knife-throwing father Orgo (Guy Stockwell) and his religious zealot mother Concha (Blanca Guerra). Fenix has a crush on a deaf mute tightrope walker named Alma whose verbally abusive mother is the Tattooed Woman of the circus as well as Orgo’s mistress. Fenix and Alma share a bond, living in a circus with their strange parents and rather unconventional upbringing.
When Concha catches Orgo with the Tattooed Woman during one of their performances, she loses her marbles and attacks the couple while in bed, splashing acid on Orgo’s crotch. Enraged, he uses his knives to cut off the arms of his wife, leaving his armless spouse to bleed to death, much like the false saint she worships at her church. Bleeding and castrated, Orgo takes his own life by slicing his own throat in front of Fenix. As the Tattooed Woman rushes off with Alma and leaving the circus behind, Fenix is left with nothing and is permanently scarred.
Now a young man (played by Jodorowsky’s older son, Axel) living in a mental institute with several mentally challenged people, Fenix himself has turned mute and lives in a small room, acting like an eagle which his father tattooed on his chest as a young boy. The doctor of the institute forces Fenix and several other patients to go to the movies one night with some of the nurses. While out on the streets, Fenix sees the now older but still seductive Tattooed Woman dancing away, now a prostitute who also uses her daughter Alma to turn tricks. Conjuring all these bottled emotions, Fenix loses it and breaks free from the group and free of the institute with the help of his armless mother.
Fenix becomes his mother’s slave, using him as her arms to do her bidding which includes murder. Like Norman Bates from Psycho, Concha doesn’t take a liking to any woman that gets close to Fenix and possesses his arms to kill.
For those of you unfamiliar with Jodorowsky’s previous movies, much of his films are more experimental, almost non-linear. His 1971 masterpiece El Topo was his take on the western genre. His follow-up Holy Mountain was his take on the religious epic. Santa Sangre is his take on the horror film, notably Italian giallo. It’s no surprise since the film was co-written by Claudio Argento, Dario Argento’s brother. What I found interesting is that most Italian giallo’s seem to put style first over story which is very much what most Jodorowsky’s films do. However, with Santa Sangre, it’s story over substance, making this his most accessible film for mainstream audiences. But that is not to say this film isn’t bizarre, it is just not as bat-shit as El Topo or Holy Mountain.
Santa Sangre is not completely a horror film. It is hard to categorize any of his films other than simply art. From the performances to the photography to the music, his films are like abstract paintings that some people will “get” while others will not. The scene of young Fenix watching his elephant die in front of him as he begs for him to not die is a moment of both heart-break and beauty as the camera slowly zooms out to show this little boy confronting death on his own as Alma sits in a corner watching him. Even some of the films more graphic kills are photographed beautifully, much like the Italian giallo films from the 70’s and 80’s.
Severin’s blu ray (released in 2011) along with the more recent DVD is filled to the top with special features. These special features can take a person hours to get through and fans of the director will want to get their hands on this release. There is a feature length documentary about the making of the film which is extremely interesting as Jodorowsky and his cast discuss everything ranging from pre-production to the release of the film. Stories such as Jodorowsky being a tyrant on the set to the point of slapping his younger son and threatening to never talk to his eldest son again if his performance is bad as well as Jodorowsky having coffee with a serial killer which provoked the inspiration for Santa Sangre are just some of the stories that are mentioned in the documentary.
If that isn’t enough there are countless interviews with Jodorowsky over the part 20 years as well as deleted scenes (these scenes have Jodorowky commentary which I wish the blu ray / DVD gave the option to hear without) a short film, a featurette on serial killer Goyo Cardenas, a music video, trailers, and the hilariously blunt audio commentary by Jodorowsky himself.
The blu ray and DVD’s picture looks amazing, keeping the 35 mm look and grain with not one hint of DNR. And judging from the look of the trailer, Severin did a superb job in cleaning up the picture. The sound however is only presented in DTS 2.0. I admit to having to crank up the volume at times to hear the dialog. While not horrible, I wish there was a 5.1 option.
Ok, listen this was a difficult review to write. I love the film but it is not for everyone nor is it easy to categorize. Some of you will “get it” and others won’t. That doesn’t make one pretentious or stupid, like works of art it’s all about what you take from it. Santa Sangre is recommended regardless. I, personally, love this movie.
Blu Ray Rating: